Teams have become a common feature of organisational life. Workplace teams are used to carry out projects of various kinds and can make a significant contribution to organisational success, but the development of good working relationships is vital to performance. Organisations that take the time to invest in building effective teams will reap the benefits of improved morale, better performance and the successful completion of projects.

Action Checklist

1. Consider whether a team is the best option

Don’t assume that a team is necessarily the best way of achieving the objectives you have in mind. Think carefully about the tasks to be completed and the skills required before launching into the formation of a team. Consider whether there is a need for a mix of skills and experience, the sharing of workloads, or for brainstorming and problem solving. In such cases a team will often be the best option. Otherwise, ask yourself whether the task can be more effectively carried out by a single person with the relevant knowledge and skills. It is important to weigh the advantages and disadvantages of team working – there may be losses in coordination and motivation if teams are not carefully developed and managed. Also consider organisational culture – teamwork may be difficult, for example, in an organisation with a culture of rigid reporting structures or fixed work procedures.

2. Define objectives and the skills needed to reach them

Think carefully about the nature of the tasks or projects to be carried out by the team and the mix of knowledge and skills needed. For teams handling routine tasks on a long term basis, low levels of diversity in the team and clear definitions of tasks and roles are required. In this context, the key aims would be high levels of cohesion and commitment and low levels of conflict. For innovation and problem solving, on the other hand, high levels of diversity and complementary skills will be required and the definition of goals and roles may be left to the team. This might involve losses in coordination, much less cohesion, and fairly high potential for conflict, but could be worthwhile if new ideas and solutions are required.

3. Consider the make-up of the team

If you are forming a new team, you need to consider the number of people involved, their cultural backgrounds and the skill set they bring to the team. If you are setting up an international or multi-cultural team you may wish to study Geert Hofstede’s work on cultural differences. This will give you a better understanding of issues such as differing attitudes to authority, individual responsibility and uncertainty avoidance. In many organisations, however the selection of members will be outside the remit of the leader. In such cases the process of developing good working relationships and practices within the team is even more vital to success.

The work of R Meredith Belbin provides some useful insights into the patterns of behaviour exhibited by members and the way they interact with each other. You may take these into account when putting a team together or seeking to shape an existing team. Belbin identifies a number of roles which members can play and their respective strengths and weaknesses. He suggests that teams need a balance of members with differing roles if they are to work together. Furthermore an understanding of personal differences and roles can help members to cooperate more successfully, complementing each other’s strengths. (See Related thinkers below for more on Belbin’s work.) Teams with a strong focus on innovation who need to develop new ideas may benefit from members with who think in different ways to analyse problems and find solutions. Edward De Bono’s ‘six thinking hats’ model of thinking style may be helpful here.

4. Plan your team building strategy

Consider the following aspects:
• a climate of trust
• communication
• training
• time
• resources
• objectives                                                                                                                                                                                                                   • tasks and roles
• feedback
You may also consider bringing in someone with team building experience to help with the initial phases, especially if the team’s task is major or complex. Alternatively, consider whether team building activities such as outbound team building, games or process labs would be helpful and appropriate.

5. Get the team together

From the outset you should aim to start to encourage the group to see themselves as a team, rather than a collection of individuals. At the initial meeting, discuss and agree the overall objectives the team is to achieve, rather than attempting to address tasks in detail. Make sure that everyone understands their personal contribution to the team’s success, its place in the project schedule and its importance to the project’s success. Bear in mind that most teams pass through several stages of development before starting to produce their best work.

Bruce Tuckman’s 1965 model of team development presents this process in the following stages:
• forming
• storming
• Norming
• Performing
Bear in mind that these stages vary in importance depending on the type of task being carried out. For example, in the case of routine tasks, groups should proceed more quickly to performing. Teams with innovative tasks will need more time for forming and storming and may find it difficult to reach the performing stage. Once an ‘innovative’ team find a problem solving strategy, it may be necessary to form a new team to implement the solution. Blanchard’s situational leadership model can help managers to lead teams through these stages according to their differing needs for coaching, support or direction.

6. Explore and establish operating ground rules

It is vital to establish ground rules from the outset, especially for cross-cultural or remote teams. Agree processes for decision-making and reporting which will be maintained throughout the life-span of the team. Establish when and how often meetings will take place and how they will be managed. Encourage a climate of open and honest communication, so that, as far as possible, members will be able to express opinions without fear of recrimination and minority views will be heard and considered. For certain projects you might want to consider using a version of the “Delphi Method”. The leader and all members may contribute to crucial decision-making processes, anonymously via questionnaires, on an iterative basis, until a consensus is reached. Anonymity can reduce internal conflicts or personality issues among members, and support complex strategic decision-making.

7. Identify individuals’ strengths and motivations

Carry out an audit of individuals’ strengths and place people in the right position based on their skills and competences. Consider also how contributions and responsibilities overlap and how synergy can be released. It is important for members to reach a common understanding of each other’s strengths. This helps to integrate the skills of members, strengthen cohesion and improve the efficiency and performance as a whole. Getting to know your members better will help you to understand which factors are most important to motivating each individual, in the short-term and in the long-term, and to ensure that these are not ignored in any rewards systems.

8. See yourself as a team member

Your role as leader is to be a member of the team – not just the boss. Always maintain fairness in your approach to members of the team. Make it clear to all that everyone in the team has an important role to play and that your role happens to be that of leader. Act as a good role model and maintain effective communication with all members, especially through listening. Be aware of the formal and informal roles within the team and endeavour to keep conflict between them to a minimum. In some cases it may be beneficial for roles to remain fluid, adding to the flexibility of working relationships, but don’t allow members to lose their focus on their individual strengths or objectives. An effective leader may decide to cede project leadership (albeit temporarily) to another, when specific skills are required.

9. Check progress towards objectives

Check regularly to ensure that everyone still has a clear focus on the goal, both individually and as a team. Identify milestones and hold members accountable for progress towards them. As the team develops, pride in shared success and lessons learned from failure should also help to develop a sense of shared purpose, strengthen commitment and contribute to improved performance in the long run.

10. Time meetings with care

Unnecessary meetings are a bane, but if there are too few, the project can lose focus. Meet regularly but with purpose, and with a clear agenda. Meetings provide opportunities to:
• check that everyone is
• comfortable with their roles and tasks
• review progress towards goals
• reflect on how the team is working together.
Identify any problems, then plan and implement appropriate action or corrective measures. Make sure that decisions are clearly documented. Someone should take responsibility for writing a summary of the meeting and circulate it to the team and leader for future reference.

11. Dissolve the team

When the team has accomplished its tasks, acknowledge this. Carry out a final review to confirm whether objectives have been fully met. Evaluate the performance, so that individuals can improve and learn from experience. Disband the team once objectives have been met. Make sure that you acknowledge every member for their contribution and do not forget to celebrate your achievements.

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